Nicholas Hytner has taken Shakespeare’s sometimes awkwardly bombastic tragedy and smoothly slipped it into a chillingly apt 21st-century setting.
As rock music bleeds from a pub in a shifty squaddie town, Iago explains why he’s so pissed off over the dregs of a pint. Othello’s passed him over for promotion, instead favouring the younger and less experienced Cassio as his lieutenant. Alongside a Made-in-Chelsea numpty Roderigo, he plans to cause the general some grief, revealing Othello’s recent secret marriage to Desdemona, and plotting to eventually win Cassio’s place.
At first, it seems he’ll have his work cut out. Adrian Lester’s Othello is so charmingly unruffled by his new father-in-law’s open racism, so calm in the face of a sudden call-up to war, and so soothingly eloquent in his protestations of love for his new wife, you feel nothing could unsettle him.
But as the action moves to Cyprus, tensions tighten. Helicopters slice the air, suits give way to desert boots, Cabinet War Rooms to reinforced concrete, and Iago’s poison starts to take effect. As Desdemona flits about in unsuitable shoes and floaty shirts, totally unaware of military protocol, it’s clear Othello has made a mistake in bringing her with him.
Rory Kinnear’s villain is a terrifying combination. Up front, he’s a salt-of-the earth soldier, all flat vowels and “tell it like it is” bluntness; underneath, he’s an exploitative, bitter, bigoted misogynist. Some of his most impressive moments will stay with us for a long time: Iago thrusting a coffee at Cassio after orchestrating a drunken brawl in the soldiers’ Page-3-decorated mess; Othello vomiting into the institutional steel toilet after Iago’s convinced him of his wife’s infidelity; Iago coolly sipping a glass of water while his boss lies, fitting, on the bathroom floor.
Kinnear’s command of the script is impressive too: with his dismissive deadpan delivery, you’re occasionally left wondering if he’s talking “Shakespeare” at all.
Vicki Mortimer’s boxy, mundane designs provide a harsh backdrop for Iago’s cruelty. The final scenes of this long but always-tense thriller play out, not in a romantic, four-poster-filled boudoir but in yet another claustrophobic, institutionalised box: a sparse IKEA-style bedroom, where unpacked suitcases rest on top of the wardrobes. After losing all his powers of rhetoric and logic earlier, Lester’s Othello finally finds his voice again. He tackles Shakespeare’s astonishing verbal elegies of loss, guilt and grief with passion and precision. In Othello’s final moments, we’re reminded of the man we met at the start.
In this stunning production, director Hytner has created something really special: a Shakespeare tragedy that retains all the wit and verbal eloquence of the original but genuinely works as a poignant psychological thriller in a 21st-century setting.
Photos by Johan Persson
Othello plays at the National Theatre Southbank, London, SE1 9PX until 18 August. Further performances beyond August will be announced in June. Tickets range from £12 to £48. You can get £12 Day Tickets, in person only, at the National from 9.30am (12 noon on Sundays). Or you can see Othello at about 250 UK cinemas on 26 September as part of NTLive. We saw Othello with a complimentary review ticket. Visit nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/othello for more details.